Fun in the 60’s apartheid army? Part 1

A brief history of 1961 – 1962

AaaaaaH. The army. The insanity! The apartheid government needed to flex its muscles after several sabotage attacks were launched in 1961, so it introduced a ballot system for National Service. It was the year in which I, at sweet 16, probably lost something important. More about this later.

Meanwhile Nelson Mandela travelled to Ethiopia to justify the attacks and rally support for uMkhonto weSizwe. On his return to South Africa, he was arrested in Howick on 5 August 1962 and sentenced to five years in jail for incitement and illegally leaving the country.

Flexing more muscles

The government continued strengthening systems to support apartheid. This led to Robben Island prison famously becoming a political prison. By now, the National Service call-up was in full swing. I was one of those innocent, pimply faced kids whose name popped out of the hat in the ballot for all 16 year-old white males. It must have been the hat of then Prime Minister, Hendrik Verwoerd because the Minister of Defence, Jim Fouche, unlike the current minister of Police, didn’t wear a hat. Is Bheki Cele trying to emulate Verwoerd? Why would he? Verwoerd was later shot but he survived. Then he was stabbed and died. That sounds like some wives of Henry VIII.

Marching Orders

When my call-up instructions arrived, I was a Big Shot in Matric. We didn’t care about much, except girls and the beach. I remember that I hadn’t even learned to swear yet. There was no need.

Virginity lost?

The direct result of a two-stroke encounter. Photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel on Unsplash

Back to the important thing I thought I’d lost. I cannot remember clearly if I had lost my virginity. I know I pondered that question. If I had lost it, where had that been and would the police help me find it? How would I recognise that it was my virginity, if they found it? The important question was “Will I enter the army unblemished or defrocked?”


My hazy memory flashes back to a huge garage-cum-store-room, where I was repairing my 50 cc Maserati two-stroke buzz-bike, while a friend looked on. The friend, a young lady four or five years my senior, was so impressed that one thing led to another and riding my buzz-bike never felt the same again. I hope that I gave more than the two strokes for which my buzz bike was licenced. Perhaps that memory is what keeps me riding motorbikes today. She, on the other hand, became a nun. I kid you not!

Maserati 50 cc. The start of joy. You didn’t know that Maserati made motorbikes.

Call-up orders

Eventually, the call-up papers arrived. At least they gave me some breathing space to decide what I wanted to study. Medicine, engineering, game ranger, pilot? Why so much pressure on a 16 year-old baby to decide now what he would be doing when he was fifty? Heck – I didn’t even know anyone who was as ancient as that. I thought they were all dead.


First things first – 1963 army intake

Some people felt pride. Some parents believed that the army would mould their little darlings into men. Some conscripts refused national service and were jailed for six years. Others fled the country.

Army infantry insignia
Bent horns & ears were harshly punished.

Those who stayed were instructed to cut their hair short and get on a train. Pity. I had a beautiful stylish quiff enhanced by Brylcream. It was the era of Ducktails. I was shipped off to Tempe in Bloemfontein (now Mangaung) and joined Five Sigh1. We wanted to sigh, but the first and last time we did was when our already short hair was shorn into an excessively short back and sides style. We were all catapulted from “big shot matric” to an army “little shit nothing”.

1 Five Sigh was 5 SAI, the Fifth Battalion of the SA Infantry. Otherwise known as cannon fodder.



Troepie – the lowest nothing

Army bed. Neat and tidy
Neat & tidy with square edges. We had a comb despite having no hair. Not even on our chests yet.

Thus began the process of humiliation, depersonalisation, and control. Troepie do this or troepie do that, or don’t do that, or speak up, or shut up. Often it was to speak up and shut up simultaneously. A trooper is a soldier, but here, 99% of orders were in Afrikaans and troepie was a diminutive insult to the lowest of the low. We had to do everything perfectly. Make our beds square. As if that was going to help us kill people! What was the point? Discipline? Mostly it was fear. Do as you are told and don’t ask any questions. Followed by “Are you f*#+ing stupid troepie? You never ask any questions”.


A mistress

You had to know your force number and your rifle number. Your rifle was your mistress. You slept with her, but not in the same way as I had with the nun. My force number was AV7059. Or perhaps that was my rifle number. Who cares?

Colourful language & a different motorbike

Not army bed

We learned to swear and we picked up some colourful language from sadistic sergeants. “Troepie, maak jou bed reg of ek druk jou piel deur jou ore en ry jou soos ‘n Harley Davidson” I shan’t translate that, but it was scary. We really believed that they could, and probably would do it. We were particular about protecting that sensitive part of our anatomy. So we made our beds all neat and tidy with square edges. This picture is not a bed made by a troepie. It might be a bed after an encounter with a potential nun. More about that, next week. Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash


Andrea Abbott again did a marvelous job of editing this article and advising me.

Find your Freelancer at SAFREA. Read more articles by creative writers and photographers in the Safrea Chronicle MediaHub. The author’s website is at Peter Ucko

End of part 1. Next week – Religion & politics. Jailed for playing soccer and a new State.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Safrea or its members.


2 Responses

  1. Loved your story Peter, can’t wait for the rest. We also have motorbikes in common. I often wonder why I forget so many things, but what happened ‘toe ek daar was’ never seems to escape memory?


    JJ Harmse

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